We Profile the Asian Talents, from Directors, to Composers, to Illustrators, Who Took Home Gold at the Oscars
Akira Kurosawa [1989, Honorary Academy Award]
One of the most influential and recognizable filmmakers in Japanese cinema history (make that all cinema history), with an illustrious collection of big-name filmmaking fans, it was only fitting that Akira Kurosawa became the first Asian figure to receive an Honorary Academy Award.
This wasn’t Kuroawa’s first Oscar rodeo: the 1975 Shakespeare adaptation DERSU UZALA had previously won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But his 1989 golden statue truly proclaimed Hollywood’s reverence for the director of SEVEN SAMURAI and RASHOMON. For his career-spanning honor, Kurosawa was introduced by two Hollywood movers and shakers named Spielberg and Lucas.
Satyajit Ray [1991, Honorary Academy Award]
Two years after Kurosawa, the Academy awarded another figurehead of the mid-century foreign film Golden Age, Satyajit Ray. Ray changed the face of Indian cinema forever with his humanist, rough-hewn, stunningly poetic Apu Trilogy. Ray further enriched his legacy with such films as THE MUSIC ROOM, THE BIG CITY, and CHARULATA, examining both the lives of protagonists both past and present, and the ways they intersected with Indian society.
Ray’s cinema remains as potent today as it’s ever been – look no further than the references in Wes Anderson’s DARJEELING LIMITED and MOONRISE KINGDOM, or the zealous response that came with Criterion’s Apu restorations last year.
Takuo Miyagishima [2004, Gordon E. Sawyer Award]
Design engineer Tak Miyagishima worked behind the scenes to help engineer the works of California’s Panavision studio, responsible for some of the most popular cameras in Hollywood. From 1954 to 2009, Miyagishima worked in various capacities at Panavision, helping to develop the lens that captured LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’s sui generis sweep, as well as one for Steven Spielberg’s World War II odyssey EMPIRE OF THE SUN.
Hayao Miyazaki [2014, Honorary Academy Award]
What Kurosawa was for the samurai epic Hayao Miyazaki has proved to be for anime – bringing the genre into the American spotlight on an unprecedented level. After the 1997 United States release of the Miyazaki-directed fantasy PRINCESS MONONOKE, America became drawn to Studio Ghibli, home to such widely beloved films as MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE. In 2002, Hiyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY became the first Japanese film to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Miyazaki’s trademark combination of visually stunning fantasy milieu and emotionally poignant themes has left a lasting mark on world cinema.
Yul Brenner [1956, THE KING AND I]
The first Asian performer to win Best Actor, Yul Brenner broke ground as one of Hollywood’s marquee names of the ’50s and ’60s. The bald-headed thespian took home Oscar gold for his role as King Mongkut of Siam, a role he’d honed for years during a successful Broadway run. Brenner went on to feature in blockbusters THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and reprised the King Monghut role that he made history with in the 1972 television series ANNA AND THE KING.
Ben Kingsley, Best Actor [1982, GANDHI]
Born of South Asian descent, actor Ben Kingsley launched his film career into overdrive with a 1982 performance as Mahatma Gandhi. Kingsley’s Oscar win kicked off a decorated career that includes roles as Itzhak Stern in SCHINDLER’S LIST, Don Logan in SEXY BEAST, and IRON MAN 3’s Mandarin.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Haing S. Ngor [1984, THE KILLING FIELDS]
In 1984, Haing S. Ngor took home Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist sent by The New York Times to report on the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Ngor, a Cambodian American surgeon by trade, had never acted before, yet carried intimate firsthand memories of Pol Pot’s brutal reign – his wife tragically died during the Rouge reign.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Miyoshi Umeki [1957, SAYONARA]
Miyoshi Umeki made Asian film history starring opposite Marlon Brando in 1957’s SAYONARA. Born in Japan, Umeki began her career as a pop singer, moving to the states in 1955. Within two years, she became the first Asian woman in history to win a performing Oscar. SAYONARA starred Umeki as a woman who falls for Brando’s soldier at a Japanese Air Force base, leading to horrific tragedy. Little over a decade after America’s disturbing internment of Japanese citizens ended, Umeki’s performance was a powerful reminder of prejudice’s deep repercussions.
Ang Lee, Best Director [2005, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; 2012, LIFE OF PI]
By 2005, Ang Lee’s Oscar reputation was already on historic ground – the Taiwanese auteur directed one of only four Asian films to win Best Foreign Language Film, CROUCHING, TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON; as well as back to back nominees THE WEDDING BANQUET and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN. 2005’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN became a cultural sensation, bringing together marquee actors Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger for a star-studded, old-school, gay romance that didn’t make apologies or concessions to the mainstream.
BROKEBACK’s Best Picture loss, to Paul Haggis’s CRASH, remains one of the most controversial in recent Oscar history, but Lee managed to come away with the first Asian Best Director award in the Academy’s history. And in 2012, with the boy-and-Bengal tiger-on-a-raft parable LIFE OF PI, Lee won again, beating out heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Michael Haneke for a second golden statue.
James Wong Howe [1955, THE ROSE TATTOO; 1963, HUD]
Born in China in 1899, James Wong Howe became one of Hollywood’s most revered cinematographers over a career spanning over fifty years. Marquee directors like John Frankenheimer, Alexander Mackendrick, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang sought his talents for stunningly textured black and white cinematography.
Pop in a Blu-ray of SWEET SOUND OF SUCCESS or SECONDS, and you’ll find a visual sensibility that still blows minds. Howe won his first Oscar for 1955’s THE ROSE TATTOO, a drama starring Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani. His second win came for HUD, a moody 1963 Texas drama starring Paul Newman.
Peter Pau [2000, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON]
A Hong Kong-born cinematographer who has earned his stripes both at home and abroad, Peter Pau’s resume features a diversity of jobs. He lensed John Woo’s 1989 genre classic THE KILLER, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, and SHOOT ‘EM UP, a comedy-action flick starring Clive Owen. In 2000, Pau joined the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON team, alongside Ang Lee, Chow Yun-fat, and Michelle Yeoh. The rest is history.
BEST FILM EDITING
Richard Chew [1977, STAR WARS]
Asian-American editor Richard Chew came into the New Hollywood scene hot. For his second and third feature jobs, Chew handled cutting duties on two of the most acclaimed American films of the seventies: THE CONVERSATION and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. His following film was the biggest cultural sensation of them all, and earned Chew an Oscar. The editor would go on to continue a richly diverse career with works like RISKY BUSINESS, REAL GENIUS, and THE NEW WORLD.
Tom Cross [2014, WHIPLASH]
Sure, WHIPLASH has J.K. Simmons as the simultaneously passionate and totalitarian jazz teacher Terence Fletcher. Yeah, it has Miles Teller as his simultaneously prodigious and erratic drumming pupil. But anyone who watched the 2014 film knows that the rhythmic, visceral editing of Tom Cross kicked the two-hander up a notch. After nearly two decades working as an assistant, with two head editing jobs on small indie jobs, Cross popped into stardom with WHIPLASH’s explosive cinema. On the heels of handling cutting duties for 2015’s JOY, starring Jennifer Lawrence, he returns with WHIPLASH director Damien Chazelle for this year’s musical LA LA LAND.
BEST ART DIRECTION
Tim Yip [2000, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON]
Veteran art director Tim Yip (who took the position for John Woo’s RED CLIFF films, the 2002 remake of SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN, and others) scored the first Best Art Direction Oscar for an Asian with his work on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Sanzo Wells [1954, GATE OF HELL]
The first Japanese color production to see foreign distribution, GATE OF HELL was widely lauded for the lush decor of its mise en scene. A vintage jidaigeki, HELL chronicles a 12th-century love triangle between samurai Morito, Wataru, and Wataru’s wife, Kesa. When Kesa and Morito plot murder… well, if you couldn’t guess by the title, it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. But the decor is stunning! For his efforts in creating HELL’s impeccable look, Sanzo Wells won the first Best Costume Design Oscar for an Asian.
Bhanu Athaiya [1982, GANDHI]
Taking up costume design duties for GANDHI, Bhanu Athaiya took home an Academy Award in 1983. She was the first Indian artist to win the award, in the midst of a career that began in the 1950s. Athiaya earned later acclaim for her work on the costumes for Oscar nominee LAGAAN.
Emi Wada [1985, RAN]
Akira Kurosawa’s late-career epic RAN left no question that the 75-year-old master of the jidaigeki still had some cinematic magic up his sleeve, with a stunning two-and-a-half KING LEAR riff that left audiences worldwide stunned. Costume designer Emi Wada proved up to the task of delivering a visual presentation to match the story’s narrative scope, evoking Japan’s Sengoku period with a vivid dress aesthetic that blended powerfully with the vistas and castles of a fading empire. Wada’s talents for evoking the past weren’t soon forgotten – two decades later, she handled costume duties on HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
Eiko Ishioka [1992, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA]
The critical legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA adaptation is checkered at best, but few deny its opulent visual design. The late Eiko Ishioka, fresh off of uncredited work on Paul Schrader’s eye-popping, unconventional biopic MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS. Ishioka contributed to an immersive eighteenth century experience, as the films delved into the Bram Stoker novel’s Gothic roots. Ishioka would later work with director Tarsem Singh, known first and foremost for his idiosyncratic visual presentations, on THE CELL, THE FALL, and IMMORTALS.
BEST MUSIC, ORIGINAL SCORE
Dimitri Tiomkin [1952, HIGH NOON; 1954, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY; 1958, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA]
One of the most revered of all Hollywood composers, Eurasian Dimitri Tiomkin took home an Oscar hat trick in the ’50s. The title song from 1952 Gary Cooper Western HIGH NOON snagged the Russia-born composer his first Oscar statue. A few years later, his score for THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, a big-budget CinemaScope disaster affair, nabbed another Academy Award. Capping off the decade was Tiomkin’s score for Ernest Hemingway adaption THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Throughout his career, Tiomkin collaborated with many of Hollywood’s premier directors, a list including Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, William Wellman, King Vidor, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su [1987, THE LAST EMPEROR]
The first European production allowed to film within the Forbidden City, THE LAST EMPEROR, a two-and-a-half hour epic charting the life of Chinese Emperor Puyi, wasn’t going to settle for just any hack to take up scoring duties. Ryuichi Sakamoto, an up-and-coming talent, took the bill, alongside Cong Su. Sakamoto broke out on the composing scene with the 1983 Nagisa Oshima-directed MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE, featuring “Forbidden Colours.” For their work, Sakamoto, Su, and Talking Heads singer David Byrne, snagged one of EMPEROR’s nine Oscars.
Tan Dun [2000, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON]
Classical composer Tan Dun took home one of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON’s four Oscars, handling composing duties on the film. He went on to take up scoring duties on HERO, as well as for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
A.R. Rahman [2008, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE]
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, a textbook Oscar sleeper, caused quite the stir with Academy voters in 2008. Chronicling the life of Jamal Malik, an impoverished Indian man who rose to fame on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?, the film snagged eight Oscar trophies, including one for Rahman’s score.
BEST MUSIC, ORIGINAL SONG
A.R. Rahman [2008, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE]
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s theme song was a big deal in ’08. There was a reworking by the Pussycat Dolls, a viral Youtube video, the works. In a genre frequently reserved for the likes of rock gods and famed English songwriters, Indian composer A.R. Rahman broke out, his catchy single beating out Peter Gabriel, and another song from SLUMDOG, “O… Saya,” to win an Oscar.
Robert Lopez [2013, LET IT GO]
If “Jai Ho” was big, “Let It Go” was a phenomenon. Mega-talented Asian-American songwriter Robert Lopez gained ample notoriety for masterminding off-Broadway sensation AVENUE Q. Writing the songbook for 2013 Disney animated film FROZEN, Lopez had people all over the country jammin’ out to Elsa’s hooky anthem of individuality, and, in the process, took home an Oscar.
BEST SOUND OR SOUND MIXING
Resul Pookutty [2008, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE]
Sound design veteran Resul Pookutty has won numerous awards for his work through the years, including a BAFTA and honors from India’s National Film Awards. For his work on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Pookutty became the first Asian to score an Oscar for Best Sound or Sound Mixing.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Doug Chiang [1992, DEATH BECOMES HER]
Trained at UCLA’s rigorous film school, Doug Chiang’s hard work paid off with a position at Industrial Light & Magic. The George Lucas-founded visual effects company set new standards for Hollywood special effects in the ’80s and ’90s; Chiang had a hand in the groundbreaking CGI on 1991’s TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. In 1993, he won an Oscar for his work as visual art director on Robert Zemeckis’ fantasy comedy DEATH BECOMES HER. Chiang has gone on to help map out visuals on such films as FORREST GUMP, THE MASK, and last year’s STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Hayao Miyazaki [2002, SPIRITED AWAY]
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Freida Lee Mock [1994, MAYA LIN: A STRONG CLEAR VISION]
Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock has made a career profiling a diversity of American figures, from Anita Hill, to Tony Kushner, to Rose Kennedy. Her 1994 documentary MAYA LIN: A STRONG CLEAR VISION sheds light on the woman who, at 21, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In 1995, A STRONG CLEAR VISION earned Mock the first Best Documentary Feature Oscar by an Asian filmmaker.
Audrey Marrs [2010, INSIDE MAN]
A producer on the highly acclaimed Iraq occupation documentary NO END IN SIGHT, Audrey Marrs won an Oscar for her work on another politically-focused doc. 2010’s INSIDE JOB took a sharply critical look at the machinations of the global financial crisis that overtook America in the late aughts.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Steven Okazaki [1990, DAYS OF WAITING: THE LIFE & ART OF ESTELLE ISHIGO]
DAYS OF WAITING takes a cinematic glimpse into the life of Estelle Ishigo, an American-born artist forced to an internment camp following World War II. Ishigo used her art to convey the feelings of the internment period, as a government-sentenced prisoner in her own country. Ishigo lived as a drifter for many years; DAYS OF WAITING ensured, however, that her story would not soon be forgotten.
Jessica Yu [1996, BREATHING LESSONS: THE LIFE AND WORK OF MARK O’BRIEN]
Filmmaker Jessica Yu won an Oscar in 1997 for BREATHING LESSONS, a documentary chronicling the struggle of Mark O’Brien, a poet, struck with polio from an early age, dealing with diminishing health. O’Brien’s journey would be adapted to a 2012 narrative feature, THE SESSIONS, starring John Hawkes.
Keiko Ibi [1998, THE PERSONALS: IMPROVISATIONS ON ROMANCE IN THE GOLDEN YEARS]
A community theater group of senior citizens serves as subjects for THE PERSNALS, the documentary short that won Keiko Ibi an Oscar in 1999.
Ruby Yang [2006, THE BLOOD OF YINGZHOU DISTRICT]
Chinese-American director Ruby Yang doesn’t shy away from subject matter that goes all too often unnoticed by the mainstream. TANGZHI IN LOVE follows the lives of Chinese gay men; THE WARRIOR OF QIUGANG chronicles the lives of a village whose water has been poisoned; JULIA’S STORY features the perspective of a college student who challenges Chinese society when she announces her HIV diagnosis. Yang received an Oscar for THE BLOOD OF YINGZHOU DISTRICT, a documentary inquiry into the lives of Chinese orphans afflicted with AIDS.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy [2011, SAVING FACE]
In both the fields of filmmaking and journalism, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won praise throughout her career. She’s placed on Time‘s 100 Most Influential People, a Livingston Award for her journalistic efforts, and received the presitigious Hilal-e-Imtiaz award. For 2011’s SAVING FACE, a documentary about two Pakistani women fighting against horrific acts of violence, Obaid-Chinoy received an Oscar in 2012.
BEST SHORT FILM, ANIMATED
Kunio Kato [2008, LA MAISON EN PETITS CUBES]
Japanese animation artist Kunio Kato snagged an Oscar for his work on LA MASION EN ETITS CUBES. The illustrated short features an elderly man who, in the face of natural disaster, sees memories flash before his eyes.
Shaun Tan [2010, THE LOST THING]
Australian-born artist Shaun Tan has won awards working in various media, particularly his work in young adult literature. He adapted his 2001 picture book THE LOST THING, the story of a boy, a creature, and their search for a home of the lost, was adapted nine years later into an animated short. For the work, Tan added another award to his shelf with an Oscar.
BEST SHORT FILM, LIVE ACTION
Chris Tashima [1997, VISAS AND VIRTUE]
Chris Tashima starred as Chiune “Sempo” Suighara, a Japanese diplomat who assisted in the successful escape of thousands of Jews from Nazi occupation during the Holocaust.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: HONORARY AWARD
Prior to the institution of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1956, eight foreign films from 1947-1955 were honored with Honorary Awards. They include the following Asian productions:
RASHOMON [1951, Akira Kurosawa]
GATE OF HELL [1954, Teinosuke Kinugasa]
SAMURAI, THE LEGEND OF MUSASHI [1955, Hiroshi Inagaki]